Dead End

Downtown redevelopment and economic doldrums are taking Houstonís homeless into even harder times

As vague as the number of homeless people is, the word itself is even more nebulous. The majority of homeless folks are not on the street but in shelters or transitional housing. According to the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston and Harris County, 55 percent of all area emergency shelter occupants are women and children -- and 55 percent of the shelter population is employed.

Yet the typical image associated with the word "homeless" is that of someone living -- often by choice -- on the street. While a minority, they pose the biggest problems, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Nationally, they account for only 10 percent of the homeless population but receive more than half the funding. Many are mentally ill, physically disabled, drug-addicted, ex-cons or some combination thereof. Their health care consists of ER visits and their sources of income vary from panhandling to disability checks to prostitution to selling plasma.

Officer C.T. Reed, whose brother occasionally lives on the streets, patrols downtown's homeless areas.
Daniel Kramer
Officer C.T. Reed, whose brother occasionally lives on the streets, patrols downtown's homeless areas.
Police have nicknamed Dong "Squattie" for his regular perch on the pavement.
Monica Fuentes
Police have nicknamed Dong "Squattie" for his regular perch on the pavement.

They're the target of Houston's new civility ordinance and the scourge of downtown business owners and residents. Some deliberately choose the lifestyle. They like the freedom. Others lose a job and wind up on the street long enough to lose hope, and once that's gone, the street's got them.

The homeless coalition is seeking $185,000 to have a new survey done next year. They're also scrambling for next year's supply of HUD grants.

The collection of 188 social service agencies that form the Houston coalition is vying for the same city, county and federal funds. They won $15.6 million in HUD funds last year, competing against 4,000 applicants nationwide. HUD awarded a record $950 million to homeless agencies in 2002 and plans to award another record total this year, according to spokesman Brian Sullivan.

The coalition is spending most of June and July reviewing 53 grant applications. The ones with the best chances of receiving funding align with HUD's new antidote for homelessness: a ten-year goal to eliminate the problem through permanent housing rather than emergency or transitional shelters. So HUD wants social service agencies to get them into permanent residences, most often SROs -- single-room occupancy units -- where they can be shuttled to treatment programs and job skills training. Heeding HUD's call, the coalition has implemented a computerized Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) that tracks individuals accessing charitable organizations, so the agencies can tell how long they've been on the streets and how best to help them.

David Mandell, the new coalition president, says Houston's agencies serve as a "national model" of collaboration, "but the key is, there's no room at the inn." Houston's dearth of affordable housing and emergency beds means that even the poor who want help can't always get it.

Those on the street find their own way to live, whether in a tent deep in the woods outside the Loop, or on a bus-stop bench downtown. Each offers distinct advantages: Some prefer the relative tranquillity beyond the Loop, where it's easier to hide. But some like the hustle of downtown, well within reach of shelters, with a pedestrian population beneficial for panhandling.

Years ago, downtown offered the kind of quiet that is now found only outside its borders. With an abundance of vacant buildings, it was a haven for the homeless. They gathered freely in large camps under overpasses and squatted in dilapidated warehouses and hotels. With a high homeless population and low land values, downtown drew shelters and other social service agencies, spawning a homeless corridor from Ruiz to La Branch in lower Midtown. Everyone else pretty much left the homeless alone.

But in the last seven years, the face of downtown has changed, with high-priced condos and swank bistros replacing a veritable shantytown. In that time, the coalition collected $122 million from HUD to help the homeless. While the once ubiquitous camps have disappeared, most of the homeless remain. Some moved into Midtown; others just found better places to hide.

Turning onto Main Street, police officer C.T. Reed rolls down the squad car window and yells, "Dong!"

Hearing his name, the bone-thin Asian man with the gray goatee picks up his blue cardboard box and springs to his feet. He's wearing green-checked wool pants, a dirty white T-shirt and white sneakers, his bushy gray hair defying gravity at a variety of angles. Like those of many men who spend too much time on the street, Dong's fingernails are like talons ringed with dirt. He looks so frail that a mosquito might knock him down, but he rounds the corner with surprising agility.

"He's easy to deal with," says Reed's partner, Ron Sessum.

Dong is a regular at the corner of Main and Rusk, along with Overcoat, a ghoulish specter in his eponymous black jacket, and Farina, an elderly Cuban native who hides his beer in a Greensheet rack. In the idiom of the squad car, Dong is known as Squattie, a name pertaining to the old man's peculiar habit of squatting extremely close to the sidewalk and shimmying his legs like a cricket.

Dong's insect impression is an affront to the city's civility ordinance, introduced last year, which forbids sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Perhaps Dong has found a creative loophole and is taunting the law by neither fully sitting nor lying, but Reed and Sessum doubt it. Yet Dong is relatively safe. All he needs to do is round the corner and resume his squatting until the officers roll through again.

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